One of the most vivid, colorful decks of playing cards ever printed started as simple black-line drawings.
“We knew that if the art held up in just black, then it was great design,” said Paul Roidoulis, CEO and art director of Liquid Blue. “If it needed a color, then that color was probably a crutch. We wanted to make sure that when the color was applied, it would give the illustration even more.”
The company in 1992 produced the Liquid Blue deck, one of the most enigmatic, beautiful decks of cards I’ve ever found. The deck features superb card stock, clever design and bold colors — a combination not often found in playing cards before 2006.
Instead of traditional suits, the deck features wheels, roses, moons and suns. The aces feature the pips with a stunning level of detail, and look like the specialty of the town’s best tattoo artist. The court cards feature skeletons in traditional poses — the deck includes two one-eyed jacks and a suicide king. The back features a glowing Liquid Blue logo floating in space. And the cards are packaged not in a box or tuck case, but a velvet pouch with the Liquid Blue logo.
I’ve written before about how cards used to either look good or feel good before today’s current custom card craze, but the Liquid Blue offers both qualities — making this deck a true treasure. Magicians may not like the full-bleed, one-way backs or the non-traditional suits, but the deck’s bold colors, exquisite art and superb handling make it a must-have for flourishers and collectors. (Seriously, flourishers: If you’re willing to spend three digits on a plain-looking Jerry’s Nugget deck, the effort to find one of these is worth your while.)
The detail is amazing, from the phases of the moon circling the ace of moons to the blood dripping from the king of roses’ sword. As it turns out, that level of perfection happened because Roidoulis grew up and worked in a print shop before Liquid Blue, and learned all about the limitations of print.
“It sounds obvious, but you can have the best design and inspiriation for a shirt, but if you don’t know how to do a color separation, it won’t look good,” Roidoulis said. “I think we’ve done things with a perfect balance between the left brain and right brain, between the creative and technical. We’ve always made our designs with an eye toward how to apply them.”
That was the case with the Liquid Blue deck, judging from the deck’s overall quality. The company is best known for making some of the sharpest T-shirts available, according to several shirt guys I know. Founded in 1987, the Rhode Island-based company has made T-shirts for a myriad of bands, sports teams and interests.
Roidoulis said the company wanted to make a deck of playing cards, but it had to feature the same style of detailed art. Also, the deck couldn’t be a throwaway — Roidoulis said that the company wanted people to use the cards for a long time, instead of switching back to a pack of Bicycles after a couple of games.
“We knew people would be drawn to the concept, but we wanted them to be playable,” Roidoulis said. “Why create all that artwork? It was the same thing as using a dollar T-shirt and making a masterpiece. Why put the Sistine Chapel on crap?”
Though the deck is not an official Grateful Dead deck, the legendary band provided inspiration for the court cards and the new suits. Roses and wheels are strong symbols for Dead Heads, as are skulls — however, traditional tarot interpretations were also used for the new symbols. For instance: Roses represent a traditional deck’s hearts, which are rooted in the tarot’s emotion-representing cups.
When it came time to print, Roidoulis said the company found a card company that offered a higher, retail-grade quality. (He didn’t remember the name of the company at the time of the interview.) The card stock for the deck feels like the U.S. Playing Card Company’s standard Air-cushion Finish. They glide, snap and handle as well as a deck of Rider backs — they even fan and faro with no effort.
It’s been 20 years since the deck was printed, but there are no plans for another deck, Roidoulis said. That means the Liquid Blue deck is a gem of a deck for collectors — it’s combination of outstanding design and excellent handling make it rare on a number of levels. I’ve owned one of these decks since 1993, when I bought my first one at Soundsmart in Springfield, Mo. For years I used it for shuffling, solitaire and the occasional spades game with friends; it wasn’t until a few years ago when I learned how to fan and found that this deck stood up to the same standards as some of the higher-end custom decks.
Opening the pouch to get at this deck is still a magical experience. I lost that original deck in the tornado, but I now own three, and they remain crown jewels in my collection.